Jeffrey Aronson: When I use a word . . . Defining translational research

jeffrey_aronsonOver the past four weeks I have been exploring models of translational research using the metaphor of crossing bridges.

I started by exploring the meanings of translation. It comes from the Latin noun translatio, from translatum, the irregular supine form of the verb transferre, to carry or cause to be carried from one place to another, hence the bridges. Translation is therefore the action of physically moving something or someone from one place to another; transplantation or change of position; the transfer of possessions or rights from one person to another; and, figuratively, the movement of ideas from one context to another or of words from one language to another.

I cited some of a large range of early definitions of translational research and suggested that they were either too non-specific or too focused. I then derived a simple operational model followed by a more complex one, but pointed out their failings. Finally, building on previous descriptions and models, I proposed a new operational model altogether, open to comments.

Based on this operational model, I now propose a definition of translational research in a clinical context, written here as it might be found as a headword in a dictionary:

translational research, n. /trɑːnzˈleɪʃən(ə)l rᵻˈsəːtʃ/ [In clinical medicine] the interactive use of the whole spectrum of scientific research, from basic to applied, to obtain new knowledge and understanding, and to develop new skills and innovative products or processes, any or all of which can be disseminated, tested, and implemented as monitored therapeutic interventions [Latin translatio, transference + French recherche, thorough investigation, Late Latin circare, to go around]

Other terms in this definition that themselves need defining include “knowledge”, “dissemination”, “implementation”, “basic research”, “applied research”, and “research” itself. The Cooksey report and the Frascati Manual 2015 both offer definitions of basic and applied research. In a later blog I shall discuss other terms. But now, what about “research”?

“Research” comes from an IndoEuropean root (S)KER, to turn or bend, from which we get curb, curve, and curvature, and many other derivatives from modified, extended, and metathesised forms:

• KOR-ONO—corona, crown, krona (Greek κορωνός, curved; Latin corona, a crown);
• KRENG— range, arrange, derange, rank, ring, rung, wrinkle;
• KREUK—ridge, ruck, rucksack;
• KRIP-SO—crêpe, crisp;
• KRIS-NI—crinoline (Latin crinis, a hair);
•  KRIS-TA—crest, cristate (Latin crista, a tuft);
• KUR-TO—kurtosis (Greek κύρτος, convex);
• SKRENG—scrimp, shrink, shrivel.

From a reduplicated form, KI-KR-O, came Greek words such as κρίκος, a ring, giving cricoid, and κύκλος, a circle, giving cycle, bicycle, Cyclades, cyclamates, cyclamen, cyclone, cyclophosphamide, Cyclops, cyclotron, encyclical, and encyclopaedia, and Latin words giving circa, circadian, circle, circumcision, circumference, and circumbilivagination, or wheeling about.

The Latin derivative, circare, which originally meant to transfer (with a coincidental echo of translation), later meant to go around; the related noun circus meant anything round in shape, from which came the French cerchier (now chercher), meaning to go round looking for something, hence to search. Adding “re–” implies doing it again and again, i.e. thoroughly. The Oxford English Dictionary defines research in a general rather vague way [note the “etc” it includes] as “Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject. In later use also: original critical or scientific investigation carried out under the auspices of an academic or other institution.”

Below I list some other previous definitions, with comments.

Next week I shall explore an operational definition of research and devise definitions based on that approach.

Definitions of “research” from various sources

Definition: Critical and exhaustive investigation or experimentation having for its aim the discovery of new facts and their correct interpretation, the revision of accepted conclusions, theories or laws in the light of newly discovered facts, or the practical applications of such new or revised conclusions, theories or laws.

Comment: Defined in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1981); other Merriam–Webster dictionaries have similar definitions.

Definition: The attempt to derive generalisable new knowledge by addressing clearly defined questions with systematic and rigorous methods.

Comment: A footnote to this definition, from the UK Department of Health’s Research Governance Framework for Health and Social Care (2005) states that it “includes studies that aim to generate hypotheses as well as studies that aim to test them.”

Definition: Field or set of methodical, objective, rigorous and verifiable activities designed to discover logic, dynamics or coherence in an apparently random or chaotic set of data in order to provide an original explicit response to a well defined problem or to contribute to the development of a field of knowledge.

Comment: This is translated from a definition in a French dictionary “Dictionnaire actuel de l’éducation” by Renald Legendre (Guérin Canada, 2005).

Definition: Innovation related activities such as developing new or enhanced products and processes; disseminating and bringing new knowledge to market; building and testing prototypes; and carrying out non-routine laboratory testing or field studies, etc.

Comment: This definition, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (2009), includes several of the terms in my proposed definition of translational research.

Definition: Original scientific, technological and engineering, medical, cultural, social and human science or educational research which implies careful, critical, disciplined inquiry, varying in technique and method according to the nature and conditions of the problems identified, directed towards the clarification and/or resolution of the problems, and when within an institutional framework, supported by an appropriate infrastructure.

Comment: This thoughtful definition from UNESCO (2009) does not mention the desired outputs; the suggestion that an institutional framework and an appropriate infrastructure are necessary would rule out some types of research (e.g. some thought experiments).

Definition: A process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared.
It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction.
It excludes routine testing and routine analysis of materials, components and processes such as for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques. It also excludes the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research.

Comment: This definition was the basis of the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF); it was designed for a specific purpose, not in order to define research generically, which is why it concentrates on detailed outputs; in effect, the definition says “this is what we want your research to be and what we will and will not reward.”

Definition: Creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge—including knowledge of humankind, culture and society—and to devise new applications of available knowledge.

Comment: A combined definition of research and experimental development (R&D) from the Frascati Manual 2015; a codicil adds that “the activity must be: novel, creative, uncertain, systematic, [and] transferable and/or reproducible.”

Jeffrey Aronson is a clinical pharmacologist, working in the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. He is also president emeritus of the British Pharmacological Society.

Competing interests: None declared.